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A Fling and a Prayer
TIM LAYDEN
March 21, 2011
AFTER TWO TENSE MINUTES OF TWISTS AND TURNS AND HEROICS IN LAST YEAR'S TITLE GAME, BUTLER FORWARD GORDON HAYWARD HEAVED A BUZZER BEATER THAT HAD A CHANCE TO BE THE GREATEST SHOT IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL HISTORY
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March 21, 2011

A Fling And A Prayer

AFTER TWO TENSE MINUTES OF TWISTS AND TURNS AND HEROICS IN LAST YEAR'S TITLE GAME, BUTLER FORWARD GORDON HAYWARD HEAVED A BUZZER BEATER THAT HAD A CHANCE TO BE THE GREATEST SHOT IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL HISTORY

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One after another, the shots dropped from beyond the midcourt line. Was it three? Four? Could it have been five? Hard to remember. It didn't seem significant at the time—just crazy. On a February afternoon last year, Butler sophomore forward Gordon Hayward had gone to Hinkle Fieldhouse for some extra practice. The Bulldogs work out as a team at 6:30 a.m. so they won't miss classes, but players often return later for individual sessions. Finished now, Hayward and two teammates were launching half-court shots for fun. Basketball players at all levels do the same thing. "Just messing around," says Hayward. And, hey, you never know.

A group of prospective students touring the campus entered the building, a basketball shrine built in 1928. At Butler they make sure to show off Hinkle—where Hickory High and Jimmy Chitwood won their state title in Hoosiers (and Milan High and Bobby Plump won their real one)—because, as Butler vice president Tom Weede says, "How many colleges have a movie set on campus?" Hayward threw in one bomb, and the tour kids stopped to watch. Another heave fell through, and a few of the visitors clapped. Yet another went in, and they all sat in the stands. Hayward was already an Indiana treasure. Two years earlier he had scooped up a loose ball and scored at the buzzer to give Brownsburg High a state title, and now he was Butler's star, a slender, 6'8" kid with shaggy hair and soulful gray-blue eyes, straight out of Heartland central casting. Surely the visitors knew whom they were watching. Hayward remembers the afternoon from a distance, hundreds of miles from Hinkle and nearly a year later, and the recollection is more than a little bittersweet. "So, yeah," he says, "I just wish one of those could have been the One."

The One came just before midnight on April 5, 2010, in last year's NCAA championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, six miles from the Butler campus. With his team trailing top-seeded Duke by two points and with 3.6 seconds to play, Hayward pounded four long dribbles from deep in his own backcourt, loped just across the black midcourt stripe and flicked a rainbow toward the rim. If it went in, it would be the most famous shot in college basketball history: the first desperation toss to win a national title and the last step in the ascent of a tiny mid-major school to the top of the sport. If it did not go in, it would be among the most famous misses, elevating the game simply through the delicious possibility that it might have dropped. Either way, the heave became historic as soon as it left Hayward's fingertips.

At the edge of the elevated court, above the Bulldogs' bench, coach Brad Stevens followed the path of the ball. Stevens, another native Hoosier, from Zionsville, had taken Butler to the NCAA tournament in each of his first three seasons, and this team had won 25 consecutive games. Taciturn by nature, the 32-year-old Stevens had felt the emotional intensity of the Final Four weekend chipping away at his reserve. "I remember it as clear as day," says the coach, sitting in his Hinkle office in February. "I had time to think: This is a movie. This is a fairy tale. This ball is going in, and that's how it's going to end."

On the Duke bench associate head coach Chris Collins watched Hayward's shot begin its upward arc. Collins had been there before. In 1994 he was a sophomore guard for the Blue Devils, two steps away from Arkansas's Scotty Thurman when he nailed the sideline three-point rainbow that sealed a 76--72 victory for the Razorbacks and a national championship. Not again. "Of course, the ball was in the air for about 10 minutes, and it looked good," says Collins. "Human nature, I'm thinking about destiny and Butler and Indianapolis. Who wouldn't be? My heart was up in my throat. Come on, don't let this be a fairy tale."

Two steps behind Hayward, referee Tom Eades threw his left hand in the air to signal that the basket would be worth three points. Eades, 54, is a roundball lifer, a 6'3", back-to-the-basket low-post star in the early 1970s at Central City High in western Kentucky and a three-year letterman at Belmont University in Nashville. He had been calling games for more than three decades, but this was his first national championship. (Eades and his wife had planned a cruise vacation departing on the Sunday of Final Four weekend; when NCAA supervisor of officials John Adams called him, he thought he was going to get spanked for his officiating in the rugged East Regional semifinal between West Virginia and Washington. "I almost passed out when John told me I was selected to work the national championship game," Eades says.) As he tracked Hayward's shot, he listened for the horn. "I saw the flight of the ball," he says, "and I said to myself, This thing's got a chance."

In the front row of the Butler student section, at the end of the floor beneath the Bulldogs' basket, Kyle Murphy, a 21-year-old junior from Peoria, Ill., stood as the ball sailed toward him. Murphy had been among several hundred Butler students who camped outside the stadium for more than 24 hours before the game, waiting out a cold, windy overnight rainstorm while huddled beneath a small overhang. "Gordon shoots it," says Murphy, "and you don't expect it to go in. Then it looks like it might."

Under the opposite goal 21-year-old Ari Uhalde, a Duke sophomore from Santa Rosa, Calif., and a regular in the stands at Cameron Indoor Stadium, resisted her customary urge to look away in moments of peril for her Blue Devils—as if not watching would prevent disaster. "I get so nervous, I usually close my eyes," she says. "I forced myself to watch this time." She clenches her fists even in the retelling.

Outside the stadium, in a network production truck, Bob Fishman, CBS's lead director for college basketball, was looking at a panel of 15 monitors. He had orchestrated the network's Final Four coverage in 28 of the 29 previous years (missing only 1990, after undergoing a bone-marrow transplant for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma). The truck was crowded with workers and executives. "He takes that shot, and you know if it goes in, you're recording history," Fishman says. "If it goes in, it's monumental." He remembers a sudden scream in the trailer, an echo of the roar from more than 70,000 fans inside the stadium.

College basketball arrived at the spring of last year in another of its crises. If it's not a recruiting scandal, it's overpaid coaches. If it's not overpaid coaches, it's lousy graduation rates. So it was again: The latest scourge, not entirely novel, was the raiding of talent by the NBA, which watered down the college game and robbed it of its continuity. Exhibit A of this outrage was coach John Calipari's Kentucky team, with four freshmen who would flee the bluegrass for the pros after just one season.

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